Thursday, July 14, 2011

Off on Holiday

I'm off to the North for a couple of weeks (by which time I sincerely hope my post has sorted itself out) but until then it'll be pretty quiet around here. See you in August.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Missing presumed lost...

the good

Is the current status of my cheque book for the account with the money to pay my flats service charge in it. As far as I can remember I last saw it about eighteen months ago – after thinking about it for two days it’s possible that I used the last cheque on that occasion and never got a new book, but I haven’t found the stub either so it’s still lost even if it’s empty. I don’t think anything sinister has happened to it, but that yet again I’ve misplaced it which will mean some fiddling about with cash to put into the account that I can find a cheque book for at an hour in the morning when I’m vulnerable to being hustled into an ‘account review’.

the bad
The things I did manage to find have made me realise it’s time for a full scale clear out when I get the chance. Examples include a lot of dust, a box of Lego and ancient but unused Estee Lauder eye shadows (why are they together), a copy of my dissertation, a novelty condom from a very small gin brand (they had a thing about hats and did their own marketing), many, many bits for phones I no longer possess. There were several books far from their proper homes, lots of odd socks and a few odd gloves, some cassette tapes (I can’t remember when I last had a cassette player but it has to be a decade ago) a lot of hoover bags which is a reminder (as if the dust wasn’t enough) that after my hoover caught fire two years ago I should have done something about replacing it. I have contracts for jobs with companies that no longer exist, a frightening quantity of notebooks all half full of very old to do lists, and a quantity of gold leaf. Very many unidentifiable scent samples, a lot of mugs (clean I hasten to add) several Christmas cards in addressed envelopes which I clearly meant to send (but not last year), and useful after all that a few packs of ibuprofen.

the ugly
All of this in places where a cheque book might reasonably expect to be found – a tidy up will involve some serious excavation of locked chests and the airing cupboard (where I know there are more mugs and a lot more crap). In the face of all this evidence and despite what my friends may think they know I’m generally quite organised, I normally know exactly where things are, never miss payments or trains, I found nothing I couldn’t identify but which may once have been edible, or any dead spiders (no live ones either thank god). I feel quite uncomfortable when I can’t locate something but it seems that over the last year the things around me are taking over in an unprecedented way. The cheque book is most likely jammed between (or worse inside) books; it could be years before I stumble across it and the books are by far the most controlled element (shoes and clothes are the most chaotic). I know what needs to be done, I lack the will to do it, wish me luck!

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Maid – Kimberly Cutter

A few days ago there was a discussion in my on line reading group about how we responded to people who slated books we loved (and rather worse than a simple slating then proceed to poor scorn on anyone who liked the poor book in the first place - which I consider appalling bad manners). I spent some time saying that all that mattered to me is if a story entertained me enough or not – I don’t consider myself a terribly critical reader unless something really annoys me to the point that I can’t engage with what’s going on. Sometimes that’s down to bad writing but more often its inconsistent details or poor storytelling that do for me. I read primarily for entertainment and after that information and atmosphere, I like to think I’m reasonably discerning but I also hope I’m reasonably open minded about where I might find my entertainment.
In truth I’m probably too much of a snob about books to be really open minded but after that particular conversation, and coming out of a book as utterly absorbing as ‘A Rage To Live’ I was a little bit stuck as to what to go for next. I settled on ‘The Maid’ because it was sent to me from Bloomsbury and I’ve been giving it sideways looks ever since it arrived. It’s not generally the sort of book I get enthusiastic about (historical fiction, especially when it’s about real people, and it’s a hardback...) but when asked I said yes please to the book so it would be churlish to ignore it.

It turns out that Kimberly Cutter is a good story teller, good enough to stop me getting totally obsessed about the little things (although I still don’t think Joan of Arc would have been anywhere near a baked potato) which is saying something, good enough to keep me reading late into the night so that I got through this book in a day as well. I think it helps that the language is basically modern – one less thing to pick holes in or distract from the action.

Joan’s fate is both well known and grim so it also came as a surprise that the best bit of the book was the section that dealt with imprisonment and death - when she’s questioning if what she did was her will or God’s will and realises that she isn’t yet ready or willing to die. It could have come across as pompous and heavy handed but I think Cutter carries off the philosophy and theology with commendable skill. It humanises Joan, knocking the fanatic edge off her and brings the book together nicely.

Reading the reviews of ‘The Maid’ on amazon I see it’s described as a great summer read, and although I think it would be a better autumn/winter number I broadly agree. It satisfies on the entertainment front, is informative enough to make me want to know more, and has some interesting ideas lurking in the background. It’s also gone from being a book I was deeply suspicious of to one that I would happily recommend all of which makes me very smugly believe that I do indeed practice what I preach.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

A Rage To Live - John O’Hara

Posts have been few and far between of late (and with a holiday looming that’s going to be a pattern) partly because of work hours which have given me little time for anything but sleep between shifts, partly because of the diligent revision I was engaged in, and partly because the last book I read was a monster boasting 713 closely printed pages between its now sadly battered covers.

It was via Caustic Cover Critic that I first came across O’Hara (a classic case of successfully judging a book by its cover) and it was there that I saw that Vintage were releasing two more titles – ‘A Rage to Live’ and a collection of short stories. I still don’t know very much about O’Hara but was really quite excited about the chance to read more of his work. The first thing that struck me about ‘A Rage to Live’ is how long it was. Both the earlier novels (‘Appointment in Samara’, and ‘Butterfield 8’) are short and pack a lot in, ‘A Rage to Live’ is long and wordy with it. It reminded me of ‘Peyton Place’ which is not an allusion I Imagine O’Hara would have cared for, but is basically complimentary in my mind.

A Rage to Live’ tells the story of Grace Caldwell, she’s born into the elite of Fort Penn society, is in fact the only daughter of the only family that really matters and from a young age goes pretty much her own way, showing in the process a precocious sexuality. Mrs Caldwell takes care to get her daughter married as soon as she realises what’s afoot and before a real scandal can brew. The man chosen for the role of consort is Sidney Tate an outsider from New York. Fort Penn is deep in Pennsylvania (and seems to be a predominantly German town) and they’re suspicious of strangers there, a condition of Grace and Sidney’s marriage is that they stay on the family farm which Grace receives as a wedding present and has no desire to leave.

Grace loves Sidney but they marry very young and she’s used to taking what she wants with no conception of denying her passions. When temptation comes her way years of happy marriage and the fate of three children are as nothing to the impulse of the moment, Grace gives in, and the consequences are what you might expect from a small town where nothing stays a secret. Grace pays for her indiscretion with her marriage, its 1917 and Sidney plans to go off to war never to return. Sidney has placed his wife on far too high a pedestal to forgive her this kind of mistake. Fate intervenes (although the result is the same) and Grace is left a widow which is when things start to become complicated for her. She may be the queen of local society but she’s also a woman with a past and both of these things mean she’s under constant scrutiny.

O’Hara is sympathetic to Grace portraying her need for sex as something natural and admirable. He certainly points out the double standards at play between what his male characters can get away with (they are for the most part seemingly never out of brothels) and what Grace can do. Her transgressions are quite mild really, what’s shocking is that she does what she does motivated mostly by lust – it’s very masculine.

When scandal comes again, which it inevitably does, Grace is as good as innocent but it doesn’t matter, her past is all that counts and that’s that. A lot of other things happen, this is a proper saga with a long character list and despite the 700+ pages I was finished far too soon. It’s big and messy but utterly compelling. ‘Appointment in Samara’ is a better book by far, but this one is more fun. It was apparently a huge best seller back in 1949 and I can see why – and this is what brings me back to ‘Peyton Place’. There is a similar sense of scale, a similar sprinkling of salacious detail, and underneath it all a subversive message about our accepted moral values. It’s a great book, not perfect, but splendid.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Broadsheets and Blogging

Simon Savidge wrote a post earlier this week in response to an article in the bookseller by Scott Pack about missed opportunities regarding the books pages in newspapers and blogs. Pack thinks it would be fun and useful to sometimes turn over actual news print to bloggers suggesting that both sales and web traffic would increase. He also thinks it won’t happen, not least because you have to ask what journalist is going to want to hand over any part of their turf to an amateur competitor?

I would probably have forgotten about the whole debate if it hadn’t been for a ‘Decanter’ magazine article about power in the wine trade. In a list of 50 of the world’s most influential names in wine number 16 is the amateur wine blogger. ‘Decanter’ has it about right when they talk about “a world of rapidly evolving views and insights which are increasingly becoming a key reference point - and forum – with which winemakers and producers can engage”. Substitute writers and publishers for winemakers and producers – it’s all the same.

The thing about the books pages in the weekend papers is that whilst they’re presumably still there I’m not reading them anymore. This is partly an economy thing, but it’s also a question of representation. It’s right and proper that the majority of reviews should concern themselves with contemporary writing but I’m more interested in classics or rediscovered curiosities and there’s no shortage of educated, informed, and enthusiastic write ups of the books I might want to read but to find them I go straight to the bloggers who share my love of a certain type of book.

An ever increasing number of bloggers suggest I’m part of a very big crowd and the thing that I suspect is becoming increasingly clear is that though the individual number of readers each blog has may be small (a busy blog being one that has a couple of thousand hits a day) the impact they have on their readers is disproportionate. Other bloggers make me spend money. Publishers know it which is why (I assume) they are generally so willing to throw a few books our way. Some bookshops are beginning to realise it, and plenty of writers are in no doubt whatsoever.

Which leads to another thing that fascinates me about the book bloggers I know – we most of us do it for free, as a hobby it takes up a huge amount of time and it’s rewarding in all sorts of ways (but not in cash) and yet somebody somewhere is making something out of what we do for fun, and all the time we do it we’re sidelining the people who make some sort of a living from more traditional reviews. I suspect that without the internet and the passionate partisanship of a hardcore of readers, publishers like Persephone would be somewhat less successful than they have been, it’s how they’ve separated me from the better part of £500, another few dozen like me and that’s a noticeable impact on a balance sheet.

I don’t know if this has been a missed opportunity or not, but I’m quite sure that things are going to get a lot more interesting.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Nine Tailors – Dorothy L. Sayers

Or ‘As My Whimsy Takes Me’. Christina at Rochester Reader has an informal Dorothy L. Sayers challenge going on which on a more albeit sub conscious level has had as much influence on my rediscovered love of Sayers as reading ‘The Attenbury Emeralds’ did. I followed up ‘Clouds of Witness’ with ‘The Nine Tailors’ which was another Sayers that I didn't really get when I first read it, and happily remembered absolutely nothing about.

 Coming back to it years later with a warm affection for Sayers (and Whimsy) has been a treat and is a timely reminder not to dispose of books lightly. A month or so ago I would have thought I had no use for any but the books which also had Harriet in them which might have ended up expensive when I realised I was wrong.
‘The Nine Tailors’ is a curious book, as a mystery it’s not the best I’ve ever read, there are things that I don’t feel hold together brilliantly, but on the other hand, and certainly more importantly, the atmosphere is brilliant. Bleak midwinter in the Fens, a fantastic church, the sense of threat that comes with a suspicious death and any number of other details that set the scene, all underpinned by the arcane details of bell ringing. I can understand why it’s such a favourite with Sayers fans.

I can also see why critics aren’t over impressed with the bell ringing bits. They are both hypnotic and dull. The bells themselves emerge with distinct personalities as well as their own particular menace which turns out to be well earned... The information about ringing in its very dullness gives a hint of a closed world governed by arcane rules. I have also tried to find out if the method of murder is feasible, the internet is inconclusive on this point with the chances being that it’s unlikely. This doesn’t in the least matter either because it’s a really good story. There are thieves and emeralds, a couple of cases of bigamy, an absent minded but delightfully dynamic vicar, and a young woman who knows her own mind when it comes to getting an education. And of course The Bells.

The other great charm of the book is nostalgia. Presumable an inevitable part of getting older is this craving for the past. I find it vaguely disconcerting that a book written in the 1930’s reminds me of my own youth in the 1970’s, but after a day dealing with the public retreating to a world where people have impeccable manners is a delight.

(Sadly this is not the book cover I own, but it was so pretty I couldn't help but use it.)

Friday, July 1, 2011

So long and thanks for all the biscuits...

If anyone has wondered where I’ve been this week the answer is on a course. The advantage of working in the wine trade is that our courses tend to be all about wine, or in this case ‘Distilling Knowledge A Professional Guide to Spirits and Liqueurs’. The week has been blessedly light on the corporate shenanigans that all the other poor souls on courses and conferences in the hotel seemed to be undergoing. Weirdly they seemed to be enjoying themselves anyway.

The venue was a hotel in the middle of a golf course somewhere in the wilds outside of Reading. All it really had to recommend it was a lot of biscuits everywhere, they were attached to little coffee stations but I’m not counting those as I seem to have inherited my mother’s aversion to hot drinks out of paper cups. The biscuits however were very nice and saw me through the long train journey back.

When I tell people I’m off on one of these things there seems to be an idea that all I’ll be doing is sitting back and imbibing – well in the words of the frighteningly well informed Master of Wine (it’s a real thing) ‘you can swallow on your own time, at work you spit’. Its good advice as well as generally guaranteeing a slightly uneasy laugh at 8.30 in the morning when you’re faced with the first 6 samples of raw spirit of the day. The samples keep on coming (and I spit religiously as well as trying to maintain a lady like demeanour which is I admit all but impossible, and not something I’ve yet mastered – after 12 years). It’s surprisingly hard work and very intense. But fun.

It all ended with an exam, which fingers crossed went okay, but basically all I’ve read for the last 2 weeks is Dave Broom’s ‘Distilling knowledge’ I’m very grateful to Mr Broom for making a frequently dry subject; I’ve struggled a bit to find some of the finer points of barrel size and related legislation really gripping, on the other hand the finer points of how stills actually work is fascinating so it came out alright. Anyway it seemed unfair on a book that’s been such a feature not to give it an honourable mention especially when it’s a good one even if it is a little niche.